McLEAN, Va. – An Arizona congresswoman filed legislation Wednesday to ensure that a group of female World War II pilots can have their ashes laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
The pilots known as Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, flew military aircraft in noncombat roles during wartime to free up male pilots for combat. The women were considered civilians until Congress retroactively granted them veteran status in 1977.
Since then, the women have been permitted to have their ashes placed at Arlington, the cemetery in northern Virginia overlooking the nation's capital. And since 2002 they have been eligible for placement with military honors.
But last year, then-Secretary of the Army John McHugh rescinded their eligibility. In a memo, he said lawyers had determined they should never have been allowed in Arlington in the first place.
Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., said the Army's exclusion of WASPs is wrong and filed legislation to reverse McHugh's decision.
The family of WASP Elaine Harmon, who died last year at 95, has been waging a campaign to restore the rules granting WASPs the right to be placed at Arlington. An Associated Press article last week about the family's campaign prompted widespread criticism of the Army for excluding WASPs. A petition on change.org sponsored by the Harmon family has now received more than 31,000 signatures.
In the meantime, the family has been keeping Harmon's ashes in a closet while they press for inclusion at Arlington.
Eligibility for in-ground burial at Arlington, which has severe space limitations, is extremely tight, and not even all World War II veterans are eligible for burial there. But eligibility for placement of ashes, or inurnment, is not quite as strict. Arlington's rules state that "any former member of the Armed Forces who served on active duty (other than for training) and whose last service terminated honorably" is eligible to have their ashes placed at Arlington.
Harmon's family says the WASPs or their relatives aren't asking for special treatment, only the same rights that would have been afforded to them if they had been recognized as a military unit from the beginning.
But Army officials say WASPs still don't qualify, despite their retroactive status as veterans.
McSally said the Army's response is insufficient.
"We thought this was settled in 1977," said McSally, herself a retired Air Force pilot. "The Army can give some bureaucratic answer, but they're on the wrong side of this."
Renea Yates, deputy superintendent for cemetery administration at Arlington, said Wednesday in a phone interview that the cemetery faces extreme pressure on its capacity, and extending eligibility to WASPs inevitably means that the cemetery will fill up even faster.
"As stewards here, we have to make tough decisions today that will affect the life of the cemetery 20 to 30 years from now," Yates said.
There were just over 1,000 WASPs who served in the program, and it's estimated that only 100 are still alive. And not everyone who is eligible for Arlington chooses to be cremated and placed there. But Yates said there could be a domino effect that would occur by letting WASPs in. Merchant Marines who served in World War II, for example, also had veteran status granted to them retroactively under the 1977 law, and Yates said allowing them in would place a far greater strain on Arlington's capacity than the WASPs.
Kate Landdeck, a history professor at Texas Woman's university who has researched the WASPs and advocated for their inclusion at Arlington, said she is sympathetic to Arlington's concerns about space. But she said that the WASP pilots' history is distinct. WASPs, she said, were created with the intent for them to serve as a full-fledged military unit, but their admission into the armed forces was derailed strictly because of gender discrimination.
"I just think they've picked the wrong group to exclude," she said.